Cognitive Development & Environment as a Teacher


Cognitive Development in Early Childhood  

Cognitive development is all about understanding of how children process information and the way their conceptual understanding and perceptual skills develop.  It is also about understanding how the brain develops.  Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky have had the greatest impact on our understanding of cognitive development.  Children in the early years are learning about their environment by interacting with it, and integrating their new knowledge into their existing knowledge. This is one of the main reasons that the environment is seen as the third teacher. (The parents and the teachers being the first two.) It is also why it is so important that Early Years teachers are so careful and mindful about the environment that they create for the children to interact with.

Cognitive development is also influenced by culture and social interaction. In an international context this is incredibly exciting, particularly in Dubai where we have such diversity!  It provides us in the early years, and throughout the school, with a unique opportunity to lay the foundation to “help create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”

The early years are critical because this is the stage when children’s thought and language become independent. From a cognitive point of view, play is a way for children to experiment, interact, grow and develop cognitively.  Play is the work of children! Creating an environment with which children interact and learn through play is the most important job of an Early Years Teacher! The feedback that children provide through communication helps us as teachers to know where they are in their learning process. This is where the teacher’s skill of asking questions and allowing children to follow their thought processes becomes essential. Here is a link with ideas about how to encourage cognitive development in the Early Years. Cognitive Development Activities for 3 to 5 Year Olds.


The Environment is a Teacher

“Children are a laboratory for the senses with each sense activating other senses… As a result, the child’s environment cannot be seen just as a context for learning or a passive setting for activities; it is an integral part of learning and helps define their identity” (Zini, as cited in Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 2012, p. 319).  

Children learn naturally from their environment.  The space in which children (and adults) function impacts them as much as they impact it. Every day, children read their environment and work out how best to navigate their way through it.  You see this very clearly with children who like to hang back from activities and watch others before joining in. The environment is a teacher. This has been recognized since the 1840’s when Friedrich Froebel created the first Kindergarten, and continues to be recognized up until today, most noticeably in the Reggio Emilia Approach. When we read the many layers of an environment the same way that children do, we can use it as an ally to teach many of the outcomes we have incidentally. “Beauty is the voice that calls the child to engage with the materials and elevates him to a higher level of grace and courtesy as he interacts in his environment” (Haskins, 2012, p.34). The Environment is a teacher.


By environment we mean the physical environment, both inside the classroom, around the school and outside in the playground. It also includes the inter-relationships among the teachers, children and parents as well as the materials, the essential agreements and the schedule. (this is why early years practitioners are so passionate about having an appropriate schedule for their area.) Ideally the environment should be co-constructed by teachers, parents and children. The environment should have: natural light; order; beauty; open spaces free from clutter, where every material is considered for its purpose, every corner is ever-evolving to encourage children to move through the inquiry cycle and up Blooms Taxonomy while exploring their interests. The space should inspire collaboration, communication and inquiry. The space should demonstrate an understanding that the children are capable, independent and trusted by providing them with genuine materials and tools. The children and the adults should also care for the space.

Things to bear in mind

  • How well does each part of the environment invite investigation, lingering, conversation and collaboration?
  • Are children’s words and work visible in the environment in a way that communicates respect and value for their meaning-making and communication?
  • How well does the environment “challenge children aesthetically to respond deeply to the natural world, their cultural heritage and that of their host country, or to their inner world” (Tarr, 2001)?
  • To what extent are children able to discover and develop their capabilities through reasonable risk-taking?
  • Does the schedule support thoughtful, sustained engagement with ideas, materials, and friends?
  • What can we learn from how children respond to the life, materials and events in their environment?

 Additional Reading Materials:


Contributed by: Karen Cooke

Assistant Head of Early Years

Greenfield Community School


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